On Thursday, May 28, 2014 the publicist of Maya Angelou confirmed to CNN that the actress, novelist and poet had died. It is a closing chapter in the life of one of the most beloved African-American women that is deservedly eliciting kind and laudatory words as a result, but when the author of "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" sat down with photojournalist Brian Lanker for his 1989 book titled "I Dream A World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America," she said that "One of the unfortunate results of living a legendary life and dying a legendary death is that when the person is written about, more often than not he is made larger than life."
And in her death, her words once again prove true, with CNN pointing out that "her list of friends is as impressive as her illustrious career," and NBC News reporting that "The mayor is very saddened to hear the loss of a woman of such renowned phenomenal status as Dr. Angelou." And WGHB My Fox 8 reporting that Wake Forest University--which gave the esteemed author a lifetime appointment as a Reynolds Professor of American Studies at WFU in 1982, called her " a national treasure whose life and teachings inspired millions around the world."
Yet Maya Angelou told Brian Lanker in the late 80s that "the human qualities of humor, being wrong, sometimes gauche, losing, forgetting, these wonderful qualities we all have are never mentioned (when someone legendary dies). The legend is taken out of the possession of the people. Every word uttered was memorable. Well, that's not true (about people)," Maya said.
I don't tell everything I know but what I do tell is the truth," she told the "I Dream A World" author years ago.
Brian Lanker passed away in 2011, so he isn't around to speak to the passing of one of his 75 book subjects, or share the human qualities about her that she might have wished were said on this day, but on his online site Brian Lanker Photography Biography he says that he was best known for his book and exhibition of portraits that featured Mayo and 74 other African-American women, and that the debut exhibition of the book--which was held at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., set attendance records for the museum at the time.
Maya Angelou said in her interview with Lanker that "I weep a lot. I thank God I laugh a lot, too." and according to her, "The main thing in one's own private world is to try to laugh as much as you cry." And while most of the media is retelling the tragic childhood rape of this famous poet, she might rather them tell the young people she has left behind the same message she gave Lanker decades ago:
It is imperative that young people be told that we have come a long way, otherwise they are likely to become cynical. A cynical young person is almost the saddest sight to see, because it means that he or she has gone from knowing nothing to believing in nothing."
Maya did not become cynical despite her rape as a child. And she doesn't want others to become cynical either. She would not want her memory to become so legendary that it made people think their flaws were not also her flaws. In fact, it was her humanity that touched people the most. And it is that same humanity that drove her to say this to the famed Life magazine photographer.
I'm convinced that I'm a child of God. But the burden which goes along with that is, I'm convinced that everybody is a child of God. The brutes and bigots, the batterers and the bastards are also children of God. And that's where the onerous burden comes in for me, as a practicing Christian, to try to keep that in mind and not grit my teeth until they break off into little stubs."